Over three albums and related tours as leader of the New York-based quintet the Strokes, Julian Casablancas walked the tightrope between punk and pop, irony and sincerity, cynicism and romanticism.
Along with his deadpan, mike-stand-tossing stage persona came a baritone croon that conveyed vulnerability and befuddlement in the face of modern love. The band's twin-guitar assault was often carried along on a Motown bounce, copped straight from the Supremes. Lyrically, wiseacre rants alternated with heartfelt pleas to someone referred to as "dear."
Did he mean it, or was he putting us on? Did it matter, as long as it rocked?
Those questions got tougher last fall, when Casablancas delivered his solo debut, Phrazes for the Young. (Interestingly, he was among the last of his bandmates to complete an outside project during the group's long, ongoing hiatus.)
Packed with synthesizers, electronic beats and ultra-processed guitars, the album composed, programmed and performed almost entirely by Casablancas himself surprised the Strokes' neo-garage fan base. Some critics hailed him as a visionary, channeling the music of the future, and others panned him as a tapped-out hack on an '80s binge. The first single "11th Dimension," with its popcorn rhythm and roller-disco organ did not resolve that debate.
Speaking for himself in a recent phone interview, the 31-year-old Casablancas doesn't admit to any postmodern posturing. He's following his tastes, and if he resurrects the radio sounds of his childhood, it's because he genuinely likes them.
"You think the use of synthesizers is almost sarcastic with a wink, like I'm joking?" he asks. "That's really funny. I wish I could take credit for being that advancedly sarcastic."
As it turns out, the keyboard is an increasingly comfortable instrument for Casablancas, who has a bit of formal training in music theory. Even when writing for the Strokes, he says, he used keyboard as often as guitar.
"So for this record," he says, "I wrote it on keyboard, and it just kind of stayed there."
Given its deliberately synthetic sonic palette, the album covers a surprisingly broad range of styles. "30 Minute Boyfriend" is a melodramatic early-MTV pop tune. "Tourist" is sort of a Middle Eastern hip-hop blues. "Four Chords of the Apocalypse" is a sci-fi take on an Otis Redding-style soul ballad.
Among many odd and lengthy but undeniably catchy tunes, one of the strangest is the six-minute centerpiece, "Ludlow St." The multi-segmented epic is equal parts drinking song, drunkard's lament, cowboy waltz and sea shanty, combined with a history lesson about Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Beyond the too-easy New Wave comparisons, the album's densely arranged synthesizers often create a classical air, with complicated melodic patterns mounting into anxious crescendos.
Casablancas shies away from the term "composer" "I wouldn't honestly have the balls to say that" but he wouldn't mind being taken more seriously.
"Sometimes I think people just have the idea that I'm a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar and I just play some chords," he says. "Once I start developing something, I'm thinking of everything."
Casablancas and graphic designer Warren Fu, whose resume includes work for Lucasfilm, have been collaborating since the early Strokes days. Their vision for Phrazes is sort of a Star Warsy post-apocalyptic lounge vibe, reflected in the sleeve design, a 90-second video trailer for the album and an ambitious video for "11th Dimension." The latter has parallel storylines with Casablancas as protagonist in three distinct settings: a black-and-white Victorian opera set, Tron-like battle scenes and lip-sync performance clips reminiscent of vintage Robert Palmer videos. Asked for a term to describe their aesthetic, he offers "retro-futuristic? I don't know."
"We collect different images that we think are cool, and we talk about them," he says. "We collaborate on everything, from designing the merch to the videos and artwork to the web things we did, the teaser and everything."
Casablancas also has strong opinions about how the music business should be conducted. He insisted, for example, that his album be available on iTunes for just $4.99, half the standard price. He later learned, however, that the initial online marketing push steered fans toward the 11-song "Deluxe Version" at $9.99, rather than the harder-to-locate $4.99 eight-song standard release. After a bit more wrangling with RCA, the two versions are now equally accessible.
There should be a happy medium, he says, a price point that works for artist, listener and label alike, somewhere between free downloading and artificially high retail prices.
"The record labels were really taking advantage of that, and now their empire is crumbling and it's going the other way," he says. "If something is good, I don't think people mind paying a few bucks for it what it's worth. But if the choice is $12.99 or free? I don't not understand that. I was a kid. You don't want to get ripped off. I think the business will reset itself eventually, and it won't be a million-dollar private-jet cokefest."
Although he played a few shows in major cities after the album's release, Casablancas and his band two guitars, two keyboards, a drummer and a percussionist are just now embarking on a proper U.S. tour, which stops Friday, April 9, at the Vogue for a "Rock for Riley" benefit show.
"One of the goals of the record was to have a lot of interlocking melodies and rhythms going on," he says. "So I think when we play live, to see all that crazy stuff it was pretty complicated to think of how to reproduce it and have everyone play it all. When it all works, I think it's really exciting to see all of that."
Other recent projects for Casablancas have included recording a vocal track and appearing in a video for Lonely Island, the musical comedy trio led by Andy Samberg. But when can we expect that next Strokes album?
"I wanted to put it out during the last tour," he says coyly. "Maybe in September or January. It's almost finished. I'm still doing things here and there."
Is anything in particular holding it up?
"Not really," he says. "It's not because of what I'm doing. I know that."